Among all the Cabinet-level agencies, perhaps none inspires more Republican ire than the Department of Education. President Trump as a candidate expressed openness to eliminating the department, writing in his campaign book, “A lot of people believe the Department of Education should just be eliminated. Get rid of it. If we don’t eliminate it completely, we certainly need to cut its power and reach.”
A new bill in Congress would do just that.
What the bill does
Some bills can be hundreds of pages long. H.R. 899, introduced by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY4), is a single sentence: “The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”
What would it mean if the Education Department ended? The move would save taxpayers about $68.3 billion, the appropriated budget for the department this fiscal year. That represents about 2.1 percent of the total federal budget, though it’s one of the lowest-spending Cabinet-level agencies. Nevertheless critics note how the department’s budget has increased above its $41.5 billion inflation-adjusted budget when it began operating in 1980.
4,400 department employees would also be laid off. Critics also note that the government’s own classification during the shutdown a few years ago labeled 94 percent of Education Department employees as nonessential.
From a policy perspective, the move would revert more control over education to both states and municipalities like cities and town. However, many point out that states and already control most education aspects in the U.S., as states and localities make up 92 percent of education funding, determining such aspects as curricula and testing requirements.
From a funding perspective, Dept of Education directs substantial federal funds to schools and individual students such as Pell Grants and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) program for college loans, which for millions of people represent their most direct involvement with the Education Department. It’s unclear what would happen to these channels of support.
Who supports it
Supporters argue the Education Department is an expensive bureaucracy that takes power out of states and local communities.
“Neither Congress nor the President, through his appointees, has the constitutional authority to dictate how and what our children must learn,” House lead sponsor Massie said in a statement. “Unelected bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. should not be in charge of our children’s intellectual and moral development. States and local communities are best positioned to shape curricula that meet the needs of their students.”
Who opposes it
Opponents argue that the Education Department serves necessary functions to ensure that children in this country have equality of educational opportunity. Needless to say, essentially no Democrats support the department’s abolishment.
A more surprising apparent opponent is House Education and the Workforce Committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC5). When asked by Inside Higher Ed whether she could envision Congress eliminating the Education Department, Foxx replied that she’d rather she the department cut back and curtailed without being abolished. “I definitely see the opportunity to see the department scaled back. We need to talk about those things,” Foxx said. “But we need to look at the functions of the Education Department and see are there things that can be done at the state and local level that are now being done at the federal level.”
Odds of passage
The bill has attracted seven cosponsors, all Republicans. For comparison, another House bill to eliminate the GOP bête noire Environmental Protection Agency only has three cosponsors. The Education Department bill awaits a vote in the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Although Trump has said he’d prefer to eliminate the Education Department, a widely-circulated conservative idea was for Trump to simply not appoint a new secretary or director for any department or agency he wished to eliminate. That didn’t happen, as Trump nominated billionaire philanthropist and former Michigan Republican Party chair Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary. (She was confirmed after a 50–50 Senate tie that was broken by Vice President Mike Pence.) This might indicate that while Trump might still cut back the agency’s funding or responsibilities, he might not actually eliminate the department as previously claimed.
Previous attempts to eliminate the Education Department
Although some form of federal oversight of education has been around for most of U.S. history, the Education Department was established as a Cabinet-level agency in 1979 under Democratic President Jimmy Carter. From the outset the department was always controversial, for much the same reasons the GOP doesn’t like it now. A few months later when Republican President Ronald Reagan took office, he pledged to eliminate it along with the Department of Energy. After several years of failing to do either, Reagan reversed his pledge in 1985, saying that while he still privately supported such a move, he acknowledged that the plan couldn’t garner enough support in Congress.
The next two Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, did not call for the Education Department’s abolition. In fact, the latter Bush significantly increased federal involvement in education with the No Child Left Behind Act.
There is precedent for eliminating Cabinet departments. The Post Office was a Cabinet Department for 98 years until the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 under President Richard Nixon. Somewhat similarly, the Navy and Air Force used to both have their own Cabinet-level departments until they were subsumed into the new Department of Defense in 1949, while the CIA and Office of Drug Control Policy both still exist but are no longer classified as Cabinet-level agencies as they once were.